Feeling the wind in their sails, the Labour right wing is on the offensive. And now they are coming for left MPs such as Apsana Begum in Tower Hamlets. The lesson is clear: we need a bold socialist leadership in the labour movement.
Since the election of ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer as Labour leader, the Labour right wing have been gutting the party of socialists using salami tactics. Now their focus has turned to left-wing Labour MPs. One such example is the vicious campaign to oust Apsana Begum as Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse.
The campaign to deselect Begum represents the extreme lengths that the Labour right wing are willing to go to in order to consolidate their now dominant position. Involving anti-democratic manoeuvres and misogynistic smears, this campaign is a warning to left Labour MPs that they are next.
These attacks are the result of the failures of the leadership of the left – in particular Momentum. They provide a vital lesson for socialists. Conciliation, timidity, and calls for ‘unity’ have led to a situation in which the right wing feel that they can get away with murder.
Ever since being elected in 2019, Begum has been under attack by the right wing. Even before this, the right used all manner of dirty tricks to try and stop her getting selected, abetting in a campaign of slander against her.
Apsana was acquitted at a trial, following allegations against her brought by the Labour-run council, who utilised evidence from her ex-husband: a former Labour councillor, who has subsequently lost his position, after getting suspended by the Labour Party.
The forces against her are formidable. There’s the local developers, led by the Canary Wharf Group, which have many links – including financial – to the local party. And there are the Labour councillors, who were almost unanimously opposed to Begum’s selection, because of her previous opposition to their cuts and attacks on the trade unions.
Around the borough, Apsana is generally well-liked. Her frequent and determined support for local trade unions has earned her the respect of many trade unionists, including in Unite and Unison, whose members she has repeatedly supported against the council, against outsourcing giant Serco, and others.
The latest manoeuvre in this campaign, however, has revealed the absolute ruthlessness that the right wing will resort to in order to get rid of socialists in Labour.
After a disastrous defeat to Aspire in the local elections, Begum’s ex-husband and the Labour councillors have joined forces to attempt to remove her as Labour’s candidate.
An unholy alliance
An unholy alliance has emerged. On the one hand, there are current and former councillors, including Begum’s ex-husband. The former councillors have apparently decided to blame Begum for their own mistakes – as though it wasn’t their own attacks on residents and trade unions that were to blame for their recent defeat.
On the other hand, a substantial group of Aspire supporters, who retain their Labour Party membership, have – for reasons best known to themselves – taken it upon themselves to attempt to remove Apsana Begum.
Into the mix we have a former Momentum-supported councillor, who is renowned for not turning up to meetings (be they Labour or council), but who has been seen campaigning against Begum and for herself throughout the constituency (contrary to Labour Party rules).
This councillor is reportedly backed by a former Momentum NCG member and ex-councillor. This shows exactly how dangerous Momentum’s habit of backing unprincipled careerists can be.
All kinds of secondary issues have been raised as criticism of Apsana Begum. One of the most prominent is that she has supposedly failed to pick up the phone when people have rung her. Another complaint is her lack of a constituency office: something that is the case not only for Begum, but for a number of MPs.
The truth is that all these are merely excuses to cover up an attack on a very prominent female left-winger, and to hide the unprincipled nature of the coalition that has arisen, whose sole interest is to get rid of Begum.
The ward meetings that have taken place so far have been marred with procedural irregularities. Not only is someone clearly using membership data contrary to rules, and also campaigning openly for themselves, but large groups of men have turned up at meetings to intimidate participants.
Threats have been issued against female members who have spoken up for Begum. And at meetings both in Mile End & Limehouse and Lansbury & Poplar branches, EC representatives refused to distribute prescribed paperwork – in particular Begum’s leaflet – or allow time to read it.
Speakers have also been shouted down. In one crucial meeting in Mile End & Limehouse, which ended 68-61 against Apsana, the aforementioned local councillor personally marched 20-30 people to the meeting. And for some reason, this same councillor was seen signing in members to the meeting.
At last week’s Shadwell ward meeting, held on 13 June, this alliance was on full display.
The same councillor was seen campaigning throughout the day in the ward. At the meeting itself, one right-wing EC representative, who was there to oversee the conduct of the meeting, could be seen chatting and joking with well-known Aspire supporters. 20-30 or so of the people present were clearly well known to each other and acted as a block. The meeting ended 31-44, and so this block of never-before-seen members had the decisive say.
The presence of Aspire-supporters was acknowledged by the chair, who appealed to them to use their votes wisely. One speaker, speaking against the trigger and for Begum, asked those present to consider what they were participating in: forming a block with the right wing, in order to get rid of a socialist MP that had stood up against cuts, Islamophobia, and many other important issues.
Another explained his admiration that Begum hasn’t been swallowed up by the atmosphere in Parliament, but has stood her ground against the pressure. The only person to speak in favour of triggering used the opportunity to chastise the audience, because they had been campaigning for Aspire during the election. He clearly thought the presence of these was offensive to the whole process.
The whole process took another turn to the surreal on Monday, when activists entered a cafe where the chair and secretary (the ex-Momentum NCG member) of Whitechapel ward were conducting a supposedly online Zoom meeting, but with a large number of branch members present. This was supposedly in order to ‘help’ them with the technology. But only select members had been invited.
Why the meeting was held on Zoom is also something best known to the chair and secretary, given that they had, just the day before, organised a trigger ballot meeting for the other MP, Rushanara Ali, in person (the branch spans two constituencies). Clearly, the online meeting was a guarantee to stitch it up, and the in-person gathering in the cafe was meant to ensure that the secret ballot was not so secret.
Present in person (but not online) was also the chair of the Local Campaign Forum, who is not a member of the ward, and who is not supposed to have a role in monitoring the trigger process. What role could he have, except to ensure that the members present were voting the right way?
There have been further accusations of people not being let into the Zoom meeting, of fake members being allowed in, without checking who they were. The chair and secretary later claimed the meeting had been disrupted by violent means, but this seems to be a thinly veiled attempt to cover up being caught red-handed breaking the rules.
Helal Abbas @HelalUAbbas prominent ex-Labour councillor and ex-leader of Tower Hamlets Council who is helping to fix the vote against @ApsanaBegumMP – he is not a member of Whitechapel ward Labour Party. He is being challenged about what he is doing there? pic.twitter.com/vWaZdlD3HV
— No misogyny Tower hamlets (@HamletsNo) June 20, 2022
No holds barred
The viciousness of the attacks against Begum reflect the fact that the right wing has to overcome the block of the unions. The unions have a substantial impact in the trigger ballot process, as they hold around 40-45% of the votes. Given Apsana’s record on visiting picket lines, opposing the council’s fire and rehire, there was little doubt that the trade unions would vote to reselect her.
The right wing therefore had to ensure that every single Labour Party branch voted against Apsana. In a situation where the rank and file – by and large – have little sympathy for the right wing of the party, the campaign had to be fought all the more viciously.
A campaign of slanders and rumours was started, leaning on all kinds of petty grievances. But even this wasn’t enough. This was a personalised, nasty campaign, designed to demoralise and confuse – as well as to lower the level of the discussion. In this, Apsana Begum’s ex-husband and his allies played a key role.
Finally, the campaign managed to break Apsana, and she had to go to A&E 10 days ago. She has been unable to participate in the campaign ever since.
A statement: pic.twitter.com/kcCRqpShBo
— Apsana Begum MP (@ApsanaBegumMP) June 22, 2022
The Labour Party, which has provisions for MPs falling ill, or getting pregnant, refused to pause or postpone the processes. They have postponed meetings or re-run them for a lot less in the past.
But it is quite clear that Labour Party general secretary David Evans and the London regional office are determined to give as much leeway as possible to the local right wing. Instead of making any attempt to deal with the allegations that have been brought out, until a couple of days ago, they insisted that they had “no complaints”, which was a barefaced lie.
The treatment of the Labour Party has gotten so bad that even charities like Women’s Aid and the Jo Cox Foundation have felt the need to speak out in Apsana Begum’s favour.
Similarly, trade union leaders from the CWU, FBU, and Equity have publicly offered Apsana their solidarity, as have the general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain and the local branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
In spite of the slanders about her lack of support, it is quite clear that beyond a small clique of activists and (ex-)councillors that are running the local party, Apsana has widespread support.
The conduct of the right wing is all the more remarkable, given how, during the Corbyn years, a bunch of right-wing MPs would demand all kinds of special treatment, the suspension of members for attempting to bring motions of no-confidence, and so on. In this case, there are clear and proven breaches of rules, alongside allegations of intimidation, but nothing is being done.
Need for socialist leadership
The attempt to appease the right wing during the Corbyn years was a complete scandal. It was a sorry sight when the leadership allowed the right wing to use the machinery of the party against left members, as soon as any right-wing member went to the press to complain about one thing or another.
The right wing has no such qualms. They are prepared to go to any lengths to oust the left from the party: whether it is utilising the courts, abusive ex-husbands, or whatever.
Behind this, of course, stands the ruling class and the state, who are doing their best to assist the right wing in the labour movement.
We saw the same vicious tactics being employed at the recent Unison national conference. And for very similar reasons. The failure of the left leadership to organise a firm response to the attacks from the right has demoralised hundreds of thousands of members, leaving left Labour MPs exposed to further attacks.
These lessons from the battles inside the Labour Party must now be used in the struggles going on in the trade unions. Only through principled and determined struggle can we wrest back control of the labour movement. Vacillations and concessions by the left merely serve to embolden the right wing.
To win these struggles, we need a militant socialist leadership in the labour movement – to take on the onslaught of attacks from the right wing, the Tories, and the bosses.
Solidarity with Apsana Begum! An injury to one is an injury to all!